A number of weeks ago, during a class—for which I am the teaching assistant—called Narcissism, Aggression, and Creativity, we entered into a discussion related to the frustrations felt while riding public transportation and the physical and psychological manifestations this frustration takes. Most of them (and, I would posit, us as well) become introverts while riding the subway or the bus, trying their best to avoid contact with the other riders, silently judging the various public-transport-related faux pas committed along the way. During the discussion the group of 25 students came into quick alignment in regards to the way other riders on the T behave and why they considered this behavior unacceptable. For a relatively long time—30 to 45 minutes—they commiserated on why everyone else makes their riding experience.
In The Crowd, Gustave Le Bon notes that:
“be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation.”
Nearly 100 years after The Crowd was published, Hyman Spotnitz, in a lecture on modern psychoanalysis called “Large Group Analaysis: Regression, Progression, Creativity,” points out that:
“Every now and then in smaller groups I would find that one patient would say something that would have a strikingly dramatic effect on the emotions of another patient. It was as though psychological fusion occurred on some level and had the effect of inspiring both people. It was a sort of psychological orgasm for both and they both became creative and changed.”
As the students in class realized they all shared a similar bitterness towards the other riders on the T, they began to align in their criticism. No matter the fact that being a rider themselves, they were at risk of committing the transgressions about which they were commiserating. An otherwise quiet group, consisting of students from various backgrounds and even majors within the school, became animated by one another. One or two complaints about public transportation led to a significant discussion, each comment inspiring another. This was “a sort of collective mind” experiencing a “a sort of psychological orgasm.”
But psychological orgasm a social movement does not make.
A few weeks after the public transportation discussion in class, my wife and I attended a public hearing for proposed service cuts and fare hikes for the MBTA. The meeting was organized by the MBTA and facilitated by various higher-ups within the organization. It was attended by an extremely diverse subsection of the Greater Boston population: citizens of all ethnicities, income brackets, and physical ability. The largest and most visible group in attendance, however, was a few dozen local students.
After a highly visible protest outside the Boston Public Library (the site of the meeting), the group moved in to the public hearing room where, as Boston.com puts it, they “broke into loud chants before the public comment period, including ‘Stand Up, Fight Back.’” The news site continues, “During the hearing, many attendees heckled Mark Boyle, assistant general manager for development at the MBTA, and booed loudly as he laid out the grim financial picture facing the agency.”
My wife and I were sitting next to the gentleman who seemed to be leading the heckling and chants. As he interrupted Boyle to yell “we already heard this, we don’t want to hear this again!” I turned to him and asked him to be quiet. I noted that I hadn’t heard this yet and was interested in what Boyle had to say. The gentleman suggested I simply read the pamphlet that had been handed out and keep to myself. I pointed out that I could certainly read the pamphlet, but if his group of protestors wanted to speak, I’d have to ignore them to do so.
The youth leader was not happy with me, but he stopped heckling for a bit. Later, he tried to quiet his own group when they tried to heckle Mayor Menino. “He agrees with us, guys!” he yelled. Apparently, he had no interest in listening to opposing messages (or even simply facts presented by the “opposition”), only ones of affirmation.
After the meeting, my wife and I discussed what had happened. We readily agreed that the proposed cuts and fare hikes were bad news for the city, its workers, and its youth. We were disappointed, however, in our inability to commiserate with others who agreed with us—simply because of the manner in which they behaved during the meeting. Much like my students had a few weeks earlier, protestors picked up on one another’s energy and enthusiasm and used that to make their presence known at the meeting. For whatever reason, however, my wife and I were not able to partake.
As anecdotal as this story is, it brings to mind the assertions made by John McCarthy and Mayer Zald in Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory. Specifically, McCarthy and Zald note that simply agreeing with the grievances of a group of people does not mean you are a member of the social movement associated with said grievances.
Instead, the two posit that “social movements may or may not be based upon the grievances of the presumed beneficiaries” and that “dilemmas occur in the choice of tactics, since what may achieve one aim may conflict with harbor aimed at achieving another.” The constant outbursts and noise-making alienated my wife and I during the meeting, even tho we shared a common grievance with the protestors.
Fortunately, McCarthy and Zald provide a framework through which we can still align ourselves with these grievances. Be it by considering ourselves adherents to the movement (conscience-based or otherwise), or by simply finding a different social movement organization within the social movement itself (allowing us to work towards common target goals, though via different tactics), my wife and I can still do what we feel comfortable doing to work to resolve the problems we see in a system (in this case, the system being the MBTA).
In The Crowd, Le Bon notes that members of a group “can only bring to bear in common on the work in hand those mediocre qualities which are the birthright of every average individual. In crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated.” Perhaps my wife and I were turned away by what we considered to be a stupid tactic taken up by the youth protestors. Maybe what we must now do is find a group whose average individual aligns more with what we consider to be reasonable.